REVIEW! Baby @ Bread and Roses Theatre, Clapham Fringe

Written by Rebecca Saffir
Directed by Jenny Horsthuis
Assistant directed by Sam Moody
Produced by Ellika Heribertson and Holly Salewski

Baby is a current, comic and poignant new play written by and starring Rebecca Saffir, and directed by Jenny Horsthuis. Focusing on love, in almost every sense, and the realisation of what it means to become an adult, this impressive premiere production took place at the Bread and Roses Theatre as part of Clapham Fringe.

Baby brings a difficult, and sometimes heartbreaking, slice of life to our attention. The protagonist; a young woman Vee, played by Rebecca Saffir, is suffocated by her home city travels to London to her lively friend Tash, played by Harriet Leitch. The raw, emotional and comical reunion ends in a spontaneous night of dance, drugs, and a funny yet conceivable one night stand with an overly confident male character Elliot, played by Lewis Page. This swift yet clear introduction of Vee’s life is then followed by a tough decision which, she believes, will not only affect Vee’s life but hundreds of others – all depending on the gender. Resulting in Vee having 4am bursts of doubt and struggling between the ethical logistics of what is right and what she truly believes to be only choice. The story line was captivating, yet the second half was slightly fragmentary in comparison to the depth at the beginning. Nonetheless, this first performance of the show was superbly executed and fully understood by the audience.

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Rehearsals: Rebecca Saffir, as protagonist Vee.

Saffir’s deft writing keeps the energy charged through out and continuously builds on the relationships between characters. It was refreshing to see brilliant new writing directed and performed to its potential. The cast were dynamic and engaging in their performance, and certainly brought life to the intimate black box theatre. Harriet Leitch, as Vee’s ardent best friend, nailed comical moments with her zealous expressions and her perfect timing. All the actors, under Jenny Horsthuis’ direction, make good use of the space and you immediately accept the minimalist design. With no set or costume changes, the piece relies on the entrances of characters and the occasional apt dance music to transport us, which works reasonably well in the compact Bread and Roses theatre, however some costume changes may work in favour of the plot, especially if performed on a larger scale.

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Rehearsals: Harriet Leitch and Rebecca Saffir as Tash and Vee.

Royal Court alumnus and creator of Baby, Saffir says, “The seed for this play was planted when I noticed how often I thought to myself, ‘Men are trash. ’ I became interested in following and exploring what might happen when you follow that thought to its most extreme conclusion. I wrote Baby to discover what happens to those of us who have read their theory and know their facts, and then have to bring those beliefs to bear on the real world.”

A play of contemporary relevance, talented actors, and emotionally striking text, Baby certainly has a bright future after this exciting premiere.

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Previous review:  BIRTH @ Pleasance Courtyard , Edinburgh Fringe

REVIEW! Knot by Nikki & JD @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Directed by Jean-Daniel Broussé, Nikki Rummer, and Rosamond Martin
Produced by Jacksons Lane 

Presented at the Assembly Roxy (Upstairs)
31st July – 25th August

Knot is a show about relationships. It is about relationships of all kind, romantic, platonic, professional, about the blurred lines between them and the lies we tell ourselves and each other in the pursuit and preservation of them, or in the creation of an interesting and credible piece of Fringe dance theatre.

The show is an excellent example of dance, acrobatics and circus skills by its two compelling performers, American Nikki Rummer and Frenchman JD Broussé. We are introduced to our two characters, playing heightened versions of themselves, as we find out how they met and began their relationship. But everything is not as it seems between our partners, as is explored over the subsequent hour of intense dance segments interspersed with minimalistic but effective monologues and duologues.

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Photo by David White

Particularly charming and enjoyable are the stylised, choreographed “fight” scenes between Nikki and JD, as they revert to child-like physicality, with all the pettiness and vindictiveness that youth can bring.

There is very little to this production from a technical standpoint. The stage is an entirely unadorned black box, there is nothing in the way of set or props (excepting the microphones the performers both use intermittently), they wear the simplest, most practical clothing (tight, acrobats’ garb in neutral colours), and the music is effective but unobtrusive, leaving nothing to distract the audience from the phenomenal acrobatic abilities of the performers. Were JD and Nikki less exceptional performers, the simplicity of the show that is built around them would be a detriment, but as it stands it places the focus exclusively where it should be.

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Photo by Laurent Cahu

This is unapologetically a piece of physical theatre, centring the bodies of its performers and the extraordinary things they can do with them. The narrative framing and snippets of acting accentuate and amplify the physical performances, and the emotion and nuance Nikki and JD are able to infuse into their dance and acrobatics all feeds back into the spoken segment. On their own, neither the physical performance nor the dialogue would make for a particularly engrossing show, but in combination they create an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. Knot is not the most mind-blowing circus show you will see this Fringe, and it is not trying to be; but it is physically impressive, entertaining, and quietly subversive in its honesty.

This show may not, however, be the best introduction to physical theatre for the uninitiated. Its stark and minimalistic style does not give a viewer uncertain of their level of interest in the form a lot to hang onto. But for audiences with an established interest in acrobatics, dance, circus or physical theatre, Knot is a clean, crisp delight, an excellent palate cleanser between the often ostentatious and over-the-top norm of the Edinburgh Fringe.

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Previous review: Four Woke Baes by Jonathan Caren @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

REVIEW! Four Woke Baes by Jonathan Caren @ The Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Directed by Teddy Bergman
Produced by Hidden People and Something for the Weekend
Featuring Lyndsy Fonseca, Michael Braun, Matt Stadelmann, Quincey Dunn-Baker, and Noah Bean
Underbelly Cowgate (Belly Button)
1st – 25th August

With its faux-trendy, twitter friendly title it’s clear that Jonathan Caren’s Four Woke Baes wants to present itself as a funny, incisive examination of modern masculinity, its foibles, contradictions and conflicts. What it is instead is a fairly mundane comedy that embraces tropes and stereotypes of the “battle of the sexes” comedies that more belong in a past two decades gone than they do in 2019.

Dez (Noah Bean) is getting married, an occasion being marked by a bachelor party camping trip in the American wilderness with his three best friends, the bro-ish womaniser Boardman (Quincy Dunn-Baker), the neurotic vegan Sean (Matt Stadelmann), and the nine-year-marriage veteran Andre (Michael Braun). The drama comes when Emma (Lyndsy Fonseca), a provocative and beautiful nu-wave author, turns up, informs them that they are in her campsite, and begrudgingly agrees to share it.

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Photo by Karla Gowlett

Over the course of seventy five minutes, the failings of the four “woke baes” are revealed, and the apparent hollowness of their supposed progressive views laid bare. The problem is that the four baes are never shown to be particularly woke in the first place, giving them no high ground from which to fall, and all of their missteps are straw-mannishly contrived.

Credit must be given to Teddy Bergman’s direction of his cast, who make excellent work of the text. The various chemistries, romantic and bromantic, are believable, and the scenes themselves crackle along at a heady pace. Any ten minute snippet of the production could have easily been a pedestrian excerpt from a far more interesting show, but put all together the text is unable to support the skills of its actors.

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Photo by Karla Gowlett

With almost clockwork regularity every character has a twist, revelation or moment of character assassination that supposedly undercuts them or relationships in some way, I suppose to show the futility of attempting integrity in the modern world. The problem is that these beats never feel earned, so the next fifteen minutes of the play are spent justifying them post hoc, just in time for the next revelation to emerge and begin the cycle again. The show creates a cast of cliches and stereotypes, sets them up to fail, and then attempts to pass off passé cynicism as wisdom when they inevitably do.

But for the title and the occasional reference to Instagram or some other artifice of modern life, this play seems like an unwieldy transplant from the early 2000s, replete with manic pixie dream girl. Furthermore, for a show supposedly about “wokeness” it does an excellent job of objectifying its only female character, both in its centring of her as a sex object, and as a narrative one who exists only to facilitate the emotional journeys of the more fully realised male characters.

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Photo by Karla Gowlett

In short this is a play about “wokeness” that seems to be written by someone who has heard of the concept but doesn’t actually understand what it is. One can claim satire, or irony, or provocativeness all one wants, but with such hollow lip service paid to its central conceit, such assertions inevitably ring false. The show is overtly heterosexual, white (the one non-white member of the cast was inhabiting the most cliched, American suburban, white picket fence character), and middle class; the very mention of feminism is almost a punch-line and speedily glossed over, where I was expecting earnest declarations of allyship from the baes, perhaps a misapplied “#metoo”.

I was excited by the idea of the show I thought I was seeing when I went into Four Woke Baes, but the truth of the performance did not live up to the promise of its title or its marketing copy. If you are looking for some idle entertainment, and the chance to recognise faces among the cast from American television, then Four Woke Baes is a decent enough way to pass an hour or so at the Fringe. Indeed, sitting in the theatre I was mostly enjoying myself, but with some distance from the show and the chance to reflect on its text and themes, even the excellent individual performances by the cast cannot hide its manifold flaws.

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Previous review: Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein @ Edinburgh Fringe Festival

REVIEW! Smack That (a conversation) @ Ovalhouse

Creator & Choreographer: Rhiannon Faith
Producer: Maddy Morgan
Run: 27th February – 16th March @ Ovalhouse

Smack That (a conversation) spoke volumes last night at Ovalhouse – addressing the serious matter of domestic abuse and sharing honest accounts through party games, audience interaction and dynamic choreography.

A close cast of six women, a mixture of non-performers and experienced dancers – all having experienced domestic abuse – welcomed us, the audience, in to Beverly’s party. They were all wearing the same sparkly dress and had the same silver hair; it was obvious they were all Beverly, and as I was passed a name sticker with ‘Tree Bev’ on it (because I had a tree of life necklace on) I realised we were all Beverly too. This persona (a similar setup to the play Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh) was used to narrate a collection of real life experiences through several methods – choral speaking, energetic movement sequences, and individual monologues (to name a few!).

Rhiannon Faith, Smack That (a conversation), Production photos

Rhiannon Faith, the creator of this powerful piece of theatre, has not only directed captivating and emotional material but she has also simultaneously created a safe space for the audience to wordlessly share their own experiences if they wanted to. This was accomplished through the use of well known party games such as ‘What would you rather…’ with an effective arms up or down method, and ‘Never have I ever’ (a interactive game in which you stand if you have done/experienced what is being said) which started off as “Never have I ever been sick at a party”, for which over half the audience stood up. Then, as the audience became more confident, the statements gradually became more personal; for instance; “Never have I ever been humiliated in front of people I care about” and “Never have I ever had a knife held to my throat.” With this change the atmosphere was tense and emotional as people around the theatre stood.

There are a number of measures in place for the audience’s well-being, for example: a chill out area for anyone needing a break from the show for personal reasons; a qualified therapist at the ready; information available about receiving help from services such as Woman Said. This is one of the first performances I have watched where the audience members are supported and cared for in such a humane and positive way, and this of course provides a comfort to those who did find themselves opening up throughout the performance.

Rhiannon Faith, Smack That (a conversation), Production photos

Stories told verbally and stories that were embodied were equally as moving and raw, and all performers had their own strengths and weaknesses. Some slightly improvised transitions between games, interactions and dances were slightly lacking momentum but this is likely to improve further into the run. Overall the group was clearly connected and acted as a true ensemble. However, one cast member in particular – Valerie Ebuwa – deserves a mention, as she blew me away by being extremely talented both vocally and physically.

You can see the time, research and care gone into this project and its outcome is a shockingly emotional, yet powerfully factual one. Rhiannon Faith has opened the audience’s eyes wide as well as their hearts – this dance theatre piece is like no other, and certainly not to be missed.

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Previous review: Cacophony, Almeida Theatre @ The Yard

REVIEW! Fight Night by Exit Productions @ the Vaults

Produced by Exit Productions, with help from Nadezhda Zhelyazkova at Full Sail Productions
Directors: Joe Ball & Chris Neels
Fight choreography: Jonathan Holby
Cast: Ben Lydon, Brendan O’Rourke, Edward Linard, Hannah Samuels, Jessica Jeffries, Pete Grimwood & Simon Pothecary
30th January – 17th February 2019

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Not everyone is a fan of boxing – the sweet science is not as sportsmanlike as some other popular sports, not as theatrical as some of the other martial arts.

I love boxing – I think it’s like extremely literal chess – but I understand the criticisms levelled against it. Many fighters are injured, some in life altering ways, there’s a lot of corruption, a lot of unsavoury personalities. I find it beautiful because, not in spite, of these flaws – and they’re all on display in this ninety minute show.

Exit Productions have made an ambitious, immersive show that takes you through all the stages of the eponymous night – we see the weigh in, go into the locker rooms, hear the pep talks, cruise the merch table, chat to the bookies and officials – and our contributions impact the outcome of the fight, which is thrilling and beautifully staged.

Dev J. Danzig’s set design uses the curious, stony space of the Vaults well – from the luxurious ringside VIP section to the dodgy blackjack table to the cramped lockers, the place feels authentically like an underground boxing show. The cast immediately establish themselves as clear, distinctive characters, all with motivations, secrets and means.

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The whole audience can get as involved as they like – some people are picked to have specific roles, such as medical assistant or valet, but we all get stacks of chips with which to bet, bribe or purchase merchandise. The actors were engaged and engaging – I spent a lot of time with a slimy promoter, an indebted doctor and an impassioned trainer, who each gave me information and opportunities to alter the outcome of the fight. We discussed head injuries, performance enhancing drugs, female boxers and risking your life for the chance of a pay off. As a judge, chosen on the basis of literally nothing, I then got to sit down and call the outcome of each round – though I and the other judges had been bribed to ensure a certain outcome.

Every audience member might have a particular favourite fighter they want to win – both the insecure loud mouth show-boater Joe Williams and the polite professional with a temper Bam Bam Bradshaw were very likable, though they hated each other. What makes the show so fascinating it that it’s impossible to tell who will be victorious until the final bell. And what does it mean to be victorious? Is it better to take a second round fall, survive to live another day or to fight through the pain and likely concussion? No two punters will have the same experience and no two performances will be the same. In that way, it is exactly like a boxing match.

Like real boxing, I loved it, but I know it may not be for everyone. If you prefer a theatre experience that lets you sit down and not make any choices, Exit Productions probably isn’t for you. If you like to get involved and do some exploring, if you enjoy some uncertainty and anticipation, this is the perfect show.

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Previous: REVIEW! Cuzco by Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez @ Theatre503

REVIEW! Welcome to the UK by PSYCHEdelight @ The Bunker

Director and Lighting Design: Sophie NL Besse
Assistant Director: Gareth Watkins
Music and Songs: Tamara Astor
Movement director: Peter Pearson
Running Dates: 22nd January – 16th February 2019

Welcome to the UK is a carnival comedy with a heart of gold. Created and performed by PSYCHEdelight – a company dedicated to giving asylum seekers a voice – whom are well known for their successful 2016 satire comedy Borderline. Welcome to the UK is the next chapter after Borderline, with a cast from 13 different countries all sharing moments of their personal journey through epic theatre techniques.

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Welcome to the UK Cast on stage at The Bunker. Photo: Jose Farinha

The fun circus style and patriotic set design of union jack coloured bunting and flags gave us a warm welcome as we entered the space. Opening with burst from the energetic compère, played by Reuben Williams, we are immediately asked to think of a dream and blow it into the balloon left on our seats. After direction we all threw our airy dreams (pardon the pun) onto the stage… only to realise the balloons were for the rifle range at this warped carnival and it was perhaps not going to be all fun and games after all.

The next 70 minutes was a whirlwind of fun fair activities masking the challenges refugees face when trying to claim asylum and build a future in the UK; menacing pigs in the haunted house portraying the fear in an arranged marriage, a home office interview displayed as a series of ridiculous questions from a mystical gypsy, a refugee’s struggle to meet tight deadlines reworked as a UV video game. Each scene was imaginative and comedy fuelled, however the show lacked slick transitions and the energy on stage regularly fluctuated.

Aesthetically the piece was very strong; the diverse ensemble using physical storytelling (such as a literal emotional roller-coaster, which certainly made me giggle), the bright (and sometimes sparkling) costumes, and most of all the intricate lighting design which was effectively utilised to change the atmosphere throughout.

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A scary Teresa May (Left) controlling the hamster whirl effect. Photo: Jose Farinha

The hostile environment created for the asylum seekers was a reflection of the UK’s decisions and policies, and this was clearly conveyed. There is no denying the importance of the show and the extremely current issues surrounding the topic. Watching the talented asylum seekers perform with such enthusiasm (particularly Mohand Hasb Alrsol Badr, who made me chuckle constantly) and listening to their experiences in a way that we can all learn and laugh was brilliant.

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An overly sympathetic ‘Mary Poppins’-esque character. Photo: Jose Farinha

PSYCHEdelight has again produced a platform for expression, and whilst making us giggle they provoke us to think, to consider, to empathise. During this wacky performance there was one particularly powerful and unsettling image; Abdulrahman Salama (a Syrian refugee) sat alone on the top of a ladder throughout with a single orange balloon, holding his phone and waiting in distress for news of his family. A constant reminder of the harsh reality between the laughs.

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Previous review: Outlying Islands, Atticist @ King’s Head Pub Theatre

REVIEW! BRAWN, Chris Wollaton @ The Space

Director: Richard Weston
Actor & Writer: Chris Wollaton
15th-19th January 2019

BRAWN is a one man show, and this one man is certainly more than enough. Chris Wollaton, who is not only the actor but also the writer, dominates the stage with his words and his chiselled physique.

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The Space is a great space for this minimalist piece of theatre; one black chair sandwiched by two large dumbbells. The fantastic acoustics guides Wollaton’s voice around the room, even at a whisper, which helps to transport us to Ryan’s garage-turned-gym where the play unfolds. Directed by Richard Weston, BRAWN shines a spotlight on the little known subject of muscle dysmorphia.

Ryan first enters the space in an obvious rush and starts working out almost immediately, raising his heart beat before removing his top. Bare chested he begins boasting in the ‘mirror’; “I’m a sexy beast.” These comic moments provide a light relief from the constant flow of gym culture.

Body obsessed Ryan gradually reveals aspects of his life which drove him to this physical and mental torment, which he obviously perceives it as a positive and focused mentality. The damage done by societies outlook on what masculinity is, and continuously advertising ‘perfection’ as a well defined muscular body, is evident and perhaps slightly repetitive. Ryan talks of how girls want to see a t-shirt tight against his ripped body, however he also delves into his past friendship with a girl from school which displays a softer side to him. These moments of gold where he forgets his weight lifting regime and shares heartfelt accounts with the audience shows the vulnerability underneath the lean figure. Chris Wollaton refers to this in the Q&A as a attempt to ‘influence men to notice what creates a real connection’.

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It is clear that the bigger Ryan’s muscles get the more suppressed his insecurities become. This is a sad fact of many young men with body dysmorphia growing up with a warped view of masculinity. BRAWN is a must-see play, full of energy and covering a rarely addressed topic but one of upmost importance nonetheless.

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Previous review: Seussical the Musical, Immersion Theatre @ Southwark Playhouse

REVIEW! How To Catch A Krampus, Sink the Pink @ Pleasance Theatre

Writer, Director, Designer: Ginger Johnson
Musical Direction: Sarah Bodalbhai
Produced by Glyn Fussell for Sink The Pink and Nic Connaughton for Pleasance
Featuring: Ginger Johnson, Lavinia Co-op, David Cumming, Mairi Houston, Mahatma Khandi, and Maxi More
13 Nov – 23 Dec 2018

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Ginger Johnson in How To Catch a Krampus. Images courtesy of Ali Wright

I was instantly drawn to this show when I read its title: the figure of the Krampus, a devilish Central European counterweight to Saint Nicholas, has always held a particular dark fascination to me. The image of a dark, cold, snowy land, inhabited by sinister figures and child-punishing monsters, forms the very antithesis to the jolly, magical, family-friendly wonderland which we in the West associate with Christmas. I was not disappointed by this production, which used exactly this creepy Gothic horror setting (kudos to sound and lighting designers, Alicia Jane Turner and Clancy Flynn) to tell a panto story that was both fabulously dark and silly – featuring history’s campest Krampus!

Ginger Johnson, a veteran London drag queen, wrote and stars in this story about a charlatan spirit medium who embarks on a quest to return a stolen child to his grieving and impoverished family. In the process, Ginger is forced to confront her own past and its associated demons – she may have lost her son to the Krampus, but she is the only person who can stop history from repeating itself. Along the way we meet a motley assortment of characters, encompassing a crew of highly comic Morris dancers, a coven of genuinely chilling demonic witches, an Italian opera diva and her questionable translator, an elderly prostitute with a colourful history, a Rocky Horror-esque German mad scientist, and many many more.

As you can probably imagine, many of these skits did not link up with each other in any sort of narrative sense, and at times this could be disorienting as your brain tried to fit together pieces drawn from different puzzles. However, all fit perfectly with theme of a deliciously dark and naughty Christmas panto, showcasing the performers’ skills at spoof and spook, dance and drama, slapstick and soprano. Musical highlights included:

  • 67-year-old Lavinia Co-op blending class and crass in a slowed-down parody of Rihanna’s S&M;
  • An all-cast a capella (I think?) and actually goosebump-raising rendition of MJ’s Thriller;
  • Dancing from Morris, Morris, Morris, Morris, Morris, and Susan;
  • A side-splittingly chaotic version of The Twelve Days of Christmas;
  • Houston sweetly singing Not While I’m Around from Sweeney Todd whilst attempting patricide;
  • Look, basically every other moment of the show…
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Lavinia Co-op and Mairi Houstin in How To Catch a Krampus. Images courtesy of Ali Wright

While each performer got their time in the spotlight, much of this show’s charm came from the chemistry between its characters. Mairi Houston as the token non-drag actor had a wonderful dynamic with Ginger Johnson, acting as a perfectly contrasting counterpart to the flamboyant larger-than-life queen. How To Catch A Krampus is bookended by comedic collaboration/confrontation between Ginger Johnson and David Cumming, whose relationship sparks with friction and hidden tensions – when they revealed the twist ending to the fable, the theatre erupted with shocked gasps.

A warning: this production is not for the faint-hearted, prudes, traditionalists, or children. Expect jump scares (the very first moment of the performance had me violently spilling my red wine over my neighbour’s yellow jacket, ooops), partial nudity, jokes about swords being semi-sexually inserted into various orifices, and all sorts of outrageous stunts. But a riot is rarely a safe event, and How To Catch A Krampus is certainly a riotously good time for the open-minded.

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Previous review: Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

REVIEW! Cuckoo by Lisa Carroll @ Soho Theatre

Written by Lisa Carroll
Directed by Debbie Hannan
Produced by Sofi Berenger

Presented by Metal Rabbit Productions
13 November – 8 December 2018

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Elise Heaven and Caitriona Ennis as Pingu and Iona. Images courtesy of David Gill

Cuckoo is a new play from Irish playwright Lisa Carroll. It follows the story of Iona, a teen girl growing up in rural Ireland, and her best friend Pingu, who is non-binary, voluntarily mute, and sports a raggedy ensemble of hoodie, tuxedo, and lapel badges, which I found oddly appealing. The two are sick of being social outcasts in their little town, where poverty is rife, opportunities are few, and the teenagers are particularly vicious – so, they decide to buy one-way Ryanair tickets to London, where they can start afresh. When the local cool kids get wind of this plan via Iona’s social media broadcasts, she finds herself suddenly getting the attention she always craved – but how will this impact her plans to get out, and her relationship with Pingu? It’s a variation on the same teen drama premise that inspired Mean Girls and countless others, but this story is Irish not American, so there is no Hollywood happy ending here.

The black box theatre space is small and intimate, with rows of audience seating arranged along both long sides of a profile stage. I would strongly advise arriving early enough to land one of the front row seats, as the barely-tiered rows behind have obscured views of the stage (especially if the front row occupants are tall!). However, even if you can’t see the lower parts of the stage, this won’t ruin your enjoyment of the show, as its main attraction is the fizzing energy and dialogue of its characters. Caitriona Ennis as Iona is particularly outstanding, with razor-sharp comic abilities and an incredibly expressive face and voice. Peter Newington as Trix plays a straightforward toxically masculine bully with aplomb, but Colin Campbell and Sade Malone have the more challenging roles of antagonists with vulnerabilities and softer sides. The fact that these supporting roles still have their own compelling and pathos-filled arcs speaks to both the actors’ and writer’s skills.

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Elise Heaven and Sade Malone as Pingu and Toller. Images courtesy of David Gill

Elise Heaven as Pingu also manages to be wonderfully expressive, despite their grand total of zero lines; instead, their eyes and body language have to do all the work in expressing anguish, joy, sass, hurt, worry, resentment, and everything in between. I’m still not completely comfortable about the ethics of having a non-binary character who is mainly just a silent satellite around the cisgender protagonist, but in some ways, I suppose the fact that Pingu’s gender identity does not dominate the conversation is a step towards normalisation. The usage of singular they/them pronouns is still quite new even to more progressive social circles, but not even the bullies in Cuckoo misgender Pingu. The play and, for the most part its characters, do not treat Pingu’s gender identity like a riddle to be solved, but as just another reason why they and the quirky Iona don’t fit in.

Iona is the only character in the play who goes by their birth name (I’m assuming that “Pockets”, for example, is probably a nickname). This, to me, seems yet another example of how she inhabits a no-man’s-land between belonging to a group – and being bestowed with a personalised nickname from the gang – and having the confidence for independent self-determination like Pingu, who we presume chose their own name as part of their journey coming out. The name “Iona” isn’t even Irish, but Scottish; for all that it looks and sounds typically Irish, it is an outsider in the small country town of Crumlin. Much like its bearer. And so it is no surprise that Iona’s desperate attempts to belong will fail, no matter how many others she pushes from the nest to do so.

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Caitriona Ennis and Colin Campbell as Iona and Pockets. Images courtesy of David Gill

These characters are messy, with figurative open wounds bleeding all over the floor even as they continue to claw at each other. Their moments of connection and softness are beautiful, as are their flares of raw rage at the hand they’ve been dealt. Cuckoo is a snapshot of a very specific piece of society, exploring questions of class, gender, youth, belonging, family, and fried chicken. And, throughout all of this, it is laugh-out-loud funny! Young people in particular will appreciate the way Cuckoo is bang up to date for 2018, but I fear that many of the pop culture, political, and technological references will date fairly quickly – all the more reason to catch it while it’s fresh.

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Previous review: vessel by Sue MacLaine Company @ Battersea Arts Centre

REVIEW! Chutney, Flux Theatre @ The Bunker

Writer: Reece Connolly
Producers: Flux Theatre & Zoe Weldon

Director: Georgie Staight
Cast: Isabel Della-Porta and Will Adolphy
6 November – 1 December 2018

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Images ©Rah Petherbridge Photography

Claire and Gregg are young, attractive, and successful. They have their own place with a spacious backyard, a stylish modern kitchen, a spare bedroom, and a John Lewis blender. He teaches English at the local school, she works a 9-5 (well, more like 8:30-6 and sometimes weekends) office job, and together they cook vegetarian meals, drink wine, watch telly, and brutally kill neighbourhood pets in the dead of night. The question is: is it true that couples who murder together, stay together?

Chutney is a black comedy with a white set, and the ethics of its narrative are pretty black-and-white to match: animal cruelty is wrong, and Claire and Gregg are basically evil, no matter how much they assert that they are simply ‘good people who do bad things’. And yet, they are shockingly, hilariously, relatably normal people, grappling with the challenges and mundanities of modern life. This is most evident in Claire, who is bored of her job and scornful of her colleagues, for all that she wants to impress them. When a workmate gifts her a kitschy singing fish for her birthday, its refrain – 9 to 5 by Dolly Parton – kicks off an existential panic attack: is this all life is? Working 9-5? Ticking boxes, keeping up appearances, saving up for an orangery? What the fuck even is an orangery, anyway??

Isabel Della-Porta is absolutely phenomenal as Claire. She is at once every go-getter young professional I’ve ever worked with (or for), a chilling Lady-Macbeth-slash-Cruella-de-Vil, and even myself when at my darkest and most morbid. I am reminded strongly of assassin Villanelle (portrayed by Jodie Comer) in BBC America’s recent series Killing Eve; both actors manage to create characters with fascinating capacities for viciousness and vulnerability, seductiveness and savagery, intelligence and insensitivity. Della-Porta moves like a shark around the stage, perfectly in control of the space and her character down to every syllable and facial twitch. Will Adolphy as Gregg is pulled along in her wake – accomplice, consort, subject, partner – and evokes the perfect mixture of pity and scorn in the audience as he sinks lower and lower into depravity trying to please her. He knows she is free-falling, and all he wants is to fall with her. Their chemistry is magnetic.

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Images ©Rah Petherbridge Photography

Both actors – as well as voice actor Rosalind McAndrew, who plays the narrator (Bertha the singing fish, don’t question it) – are brilliantly directed by Georgie Staight. I also have only good things to say of the various creative designers (Jasmine Swan on set and costume, Matt Cater on lighting, and Ben Winter on sound), whose contributions are crisp, effective, clever, and beautifully complement the script.

And of course the script, from up-and-coming writer Reece Connolly, is bitingly funny and ferociously intelligent. The dialogue crackles and the mood ricochets between hilarity, brutality, and desperate pathos. The satire of modern society and life is cutting without being patronising, and the thematic questions are explored with insight and self-awareness. In an increasingly artificial world, are we out of touch with our own human natures, and if so, is that such a bad thing? Are we all so concerned with maintaining a perfect facade that we are sacrificing all structural integrity, and crumbling as a result? How can we find meaning and stability in lives which seem increasingly hollow and precarious? Does anyone really connect anymore? Is ground-up bone meal really a good fertiliser for hanging plants?

Get yourself down to The Bunker Theatre, and you might just find out.

Tickets

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Previous review: Mirabel by Chris Goode @ Ovalhouse